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The Art of Watching
Edward Byrne

He is a good critic if he helps people understand more about the work than they could see for themselves; he is a great critic, if by his understanding and feeling for the work, by his passion, he can excite people so they want to experience more of the art that is there, waiting to be seized.
     Pauline Kael, I Lost It at the Movies

A brief announcement tucked well inside the March 11th issue of The New Yorker informed its readers that Pauline Kael, who had served as the magazine's film critic since the mid-1960s, had decided it was time to retire from regular reviewing. The editors attempted to assuage the concerns of Kael's followers by assuring that she would return on occasion with special feature arti­cles. This short news note may have been overlooked or little noticed by many readers; however, the announcement stunned those lovers of film who regard Pauline Kael as one of their own.

Ever since the sixties, in the eyes of many aficionados of film, Pauline Kael has held a high posi­tion of honor. She has been seen by her fans as a film critic whose writ­ing is worthy to be included alongside the other notable literary figures who grace the pages of The New Yorker week after week. Kael's prose is often as elegant and as lively as the essays which annually win praise for the magazine. In addi­tion, the vivid language and carefully chosen metaphors evident in her reviews have consistently rivaled the clarity and innovation which so often characterize the best New Yorker works of fiction.

More than any other critic, Pauline Kael has contributed to the notion that good film criticism is that which combines an education in the history of the cinema with a strong belief in personal taste and common sense. She never abdicates her duty to respond to a movie as an individual whose judgment, although it may be tested and chal­lenged by others, always remains distinctly her own. For this reason, Kael's criticism often is viewed as idiosyncratic. Her obviously biased commentaries about particular films, actors, or directors are some­times difficult to accept; her isolated elevation of an ordinary film to the status of a classic or her occasional cranky attack on a proven artist reveal an erratically personal preju­dice—a characteristic trait probably shared by all film viewers, but not publicly acknowledged by most film critics. Perhaps the most controver­sial of Kael's criticisms is contained in The Citizen Kane Book, published in 1971, an infamous extended essay which took issue with many of the claims concerning Orson Welles's authorship and control over Citizen Kane. Twenty years later, the points of contention raised by Kael in that volume continue to be debated. Still, Pauline Kael's readers identify with her belief in the necessity of strong individual opinions in order to instigate examination and to stim­ulate discussion of difficult issues.

Unlike many other critics, Kael's reflections on film have always begun with an impulse that arises from heartfelt passion and proceeds to the intellectual analysis only through her unravelling of emotions in the form of the written word. Kael cannot be tied to any ideological or theoretical classifica­tion. Whereas many academic film critics have staked their claims to recognition on their connections to various schools of theory or abstract intellectualized approaches (neo-Freudian, Semiological, Marxist, Feminist, Structuralist, etc.), and have produced writings resembling the obscure and unreadable criti­cism found in other humanities studies, Kael's emphasis on the pri­macy of the personal passion, emotional excitement, and enrich­ing experience associated with the simple act of attending a movie overrides any pre-conceived intellectual pigeonholing. Instead of writing a criticism filled with jar­gon resulting in the exclusion of many readers, Kael's common and colloquial language encourages inclusion of a larger readership. Therefore, rather than existing as artifacts in the deadly vacuum atmo­sphere of academia, Kael's articles are easily understood and appreciat­ed by all interested in the lively arts of filmmaking and film criticism. As a result, Kael always has been near the top of that long list of non-aca­demic critics investigating various areas of the arts and humanities who are creating much more engag­ing and important writings than those now found in the articles of academic journals and in the papers at academic conferences.

At the same time, as the power of journalistic criticism like that of Pauline Kael, Andrew Sarris, Richard Schickel, Kenneth Turan, and Stanley Kauffmann has been overtaken by the slick and stylish television reviewing conducted by Gene Siskel, Roger Ebert, and other lesser figures during the last decade, Kael has maintained a proper bal­ance between style and substance. Her articles in The New Yorker contin­ually have reinforced the importance of careful examination and complete consideration of all aspects of filmmaking when inform­ing her readers.

Nevertheless, one of the keys to Kael's success has been her con­stant identification with her readers. Just as Siskel and Ebert are shown sitting in their balcony seats, Kael repeatedly reminds her readers she is also among them. As Tim Bywater and Thomas Sobchack have noted in their book, Film Criticism "Often Kael identifies so closely with the audience that when she is not using the first person singular to refer to herself, she uses the first person plu­ral. She compares and associates her reactions with the audience's reactions. It may be for this reason she seldom goes to press screenings of films. Instead, she sees films along with the audience."

Kael's identification with the audience is solidified by her unabashed expressions of love for the medium. Sometimes she seems to be more of a fan—in the true sense of fanatic, or a devotee—with its full suggestion of devotion, than a critic, and she often appears personally pained by a disappointing film or affronted by a poor perfor­mance on the screen. Kael's admiration, perhaps adulation, for film is the characteristic that endears her to millions of film buffs throughout the nation, since her attitude toward the medium reaf­firms the affection for cinema held by so many others—a love of the movies which most cannot put into words the way she can. Consequent­ly, she acts as a spokesperson for the masses who have been moved so many times by the scenes depicted on the silver screen.

Since the movies have become the most powerful and influential art form of the twentieth century, this love for film is not rare; howev­er, Kael's ability to express that love again and again over nearly a quar­ter of a century is a unique and precious quality. Kael has eloquent­ly articulated a universal affection for film in the thousands of pages she has written over the years. Simi­larly, numerous directors— including such illustrious interna­tional filmmakers as Francois Truffaut (France), Ingmar Bergman (Sweden), and Woody Alien (Unit­ed States)—have created works which also have tried to illustrate the worldwide love affair with the movies. However, perhaps none has succeeded as well as Italian director Giuseppe Tornatore in his wonder­ful film, Cinema Paradiso, recently released on videocassette.

When Cinema Paradiso was first released in 1989, only those living in large urban areas of the country had an opportunity to view it; even then, most in the metropolitan cities were unaware of the magnificence of this small foreign film. However, Cinema Paradiso, distributed by Miramax, is another one of the numerous independent and foreign films which benefit from the recent VCR revolution. Fortunately, rather than becoming an obscure gem displayed only as part of a retrospective at a museum theatre or in a film series at a revival movie house, Cine­ma Paradiso is available now for all to discover anytime at the local video rentals store.

Cinema Paradiso arrives at the video counter with stellar creden­tials. The film won the Special Jury Prize at the 1989 Cannes Film Festi­val, where it is rumored to have received from the festival's tough and sophisticated audience a 15-minute standing ovation, lasting throughout its roll of credits and long beyond. Subsequently, Cinema Paradiso received the Academy Award as the Best Foreign Language Film of the year.

One might expect such endorsements would lift expecta­tions too high ever to be matched by any movie. Nevertheless, Cinema Paradiso does not disappoint. The film is a delight which offers in pic­tures what Pauline Kael's writings deliver in words—& loving tribute to the emotional power and social impact of the movies in the twenti­eth century.

Although the film is shown mostly in flashback, as a middle-aged man looks back at the influence movies and moviegoing had over his formative years in a small Sicilian town, the personal scope of the picture is deceptive. Cinema Paradiso examines the rela­tionship film has with other elements of society, especially reli­gious and civic institutions. The townspeople are informed about events outside their own little world, most poignantly of news concerning their loved ones at the distant fronts during war, through the Movietone-like newsreels preceding the full-length feature films. An inter­esting metaphor plays throughout the film as the cinema, representing the standards and values of contem­porary times, rivals the more conservative morals of the Catholic Church. In fact, during the early years films shown in Cinema Paradise, quite appropriately the name of the town's sole movie house, are cen­sored regularly by the local priest, who removes any hint of intimate contact However, the influence of religion eventually wanes as couples later are allowed to be seen embrac­ing and kissing on the large screen. Significantly, the movie house is located on the town's center square where all the citizens meet in times of crisis or deliberation, and inside the theatre a microcosm of the soci­ety's class structure is reflected as members of the economic upper levels are seated in the balcony to look down and even spit upon the poorer lower-class townspeople below.

Cinema Paradiso is replete with indelible images demonstrating the poetic beauty, as well as the poten­tial danger, of film. If all the remarkable scenes contained in this movie were reported here, the whole film would be revealed, and yet none of the descriptions would do justice to the emotional force of the film's individual images. Still, we are touched by the recurring shots of awe-filled facial reactions registered by audience members on our screens as they watch the mov­ing images on their silver screen and are mesmerized by the novelty of the world presented to them. They give themselves, emotionally and spiritually, to the pictures on the screen, transport themselves to a place of the imagination. In the darkened movie house, these Sicil­ian townspeople have found a contemporary paradise, a safe refuge removed from the gritty reality outside the theatre's walls.

Like Pauline Kael, director Giuseppe Tornatore identifies with the audience in Cinema Paradiso. Both know that viewing movies ought not to be passive, but ought to be passionate. Attending a film is an interaction—an act of giving one's heart and soul, as well as an act of taking. Whether as a film reviewer seeking to increase enthusiasm for the extraordinary fictional lives presented by the medium or as a movie viewer searching for emotional release from the mundane routines of real life, the activity of watching the flickering images on a screen is in itself an interpretive act, one Kael and Tornatore excel at demonstrat­ing—the art of watching.

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